Excursion was a pain in the butt

Mental flotsam in the form of a long-forgotten memory popped up when remote Baldface Creek surfaced in today's news.

The recollection caught in an eddy of my mind, refusing to be swept away in the news stream.

The memory was of an ill-fated childhood camping trip that, with a tip of the hat to that great outdoor humor writer Patrick McManus, was one of the finest miseries I've ever had the pleasure to endure.

The news item I'm referring to is a proposal by a mining firm to test drill for nickel laterite in the Baldface Creek drainage in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest west of the Illinois Valley.

Whether mining should occur there is not being debated here. We'll leave that for others to work out.

But I know the area as well as the proverbial back of my hand. My maternal grandparents operated a gold mine in Baldface Creek during the Great Depression, and I've camped countless times in that wild and woolly country.

The particular camping trip I have in mind occurred in the late summer of 1966. That was when my cousin Jim "Doc" Cooke announced it was time to go on a Baldface excursion.

"We'll live off the land — fresh trout and huckleberries," he said of his plan, which was a mite lean on details.

We were born a couple of months apart in 1951, but Doc had a doctorate in the great outdoors while we were still in high school. He used words such as "excursion" while the rest of us urchins just called it campin'.

My cousin, who died in 1994 from kidney failure, was a genuine character, the kind who could always find something interesting to do on a dull day.

He was known as a first-rate storyteller, an accomplished jokester, and a bit of a rabble rouser. To be charitable, I was largely an uncouth lout.

Truth be told, I haven't acquired much couth over the years, although I must say my loutishness has progressed rather nicely.

His plan was for us to ride Hoopa, a mammoth of a horse, from his home in O'Brien to Baldface Creek.

The big fellow was part draft horse. To reach his broad back, a step ladder was required. We're talking hooves nearly the size of pie plates.

As his owner, Doc elected to ride in the saddle. I reluctantly agreed to ride behind.

"That makes you the horse's ass," my cousin quipped. I didn't laugh either.

After climbing aboard, we followed the old McGrew Trail, a historic wagon road, over the mountains, then cut over to Biscuit Hill and down into the rugged drainage. The circuitous route covered about 16 rugged miles.

Hoopa was a plodder undeterred by the occasional rattlesnake or low-hanging branch. I can still hear his steady clip-clop on the rocky road.

Going uphill wasn't bad, but when the trail descended, I would slide forward, causing the shifting saddle to pinch the insides of my thighs each time Hoopa took a giant step.

The misery had begun.

It got worse when we finally reached the creek only to find the fish largely uninterested in biting. We caught a few small fry, just enough to whet our growing appetites.

And those huckleberries? We missed the harvest by a week or two, judging from the bear scat we saw around one huckleberry patch.

Because of the long ride in and evening fishing, we didn't have time to gather much firewood for the camp fire. No problem, Doc said, waving a flashlight he had brought along.

No doubt the flashlight would have worked fine had the batteries not been dead.

We grabbed a little firewood and cut a few fir boughs to fashion rustic beds before darkness descended. We had both brought a blanket along, plenty to keep warm on a balmy summer night.

After a lean dinner of crackers, a few small trout and several cups of tea, we fell asleep under the stars. It could have been worse, I remember thinking.

The drenching thunderstorm struck shortly after midnight.

"What do you think of your little excursion now?" I yelled angrily at Doc as we sat huddled in our blankets, soaked to the skin by the downpour. Hoopa's horse blanket formed a smelly makeshift shelter. The fire was dead out.

"It's a good thing we don't have any wood," he yelled back. "You know how hard it is to start a fire with wet wood."

His dry wit made the misery nearly complete.

Instead of staying another night as planned, we headed out after a breakfast of tea and crackers. The crackers were much better before they were rain soaked, by the way.

When we began our long descent on the McGrew Trail, I decided I would ride facing backward to avoid getting saddle-pinched again.

The rhythmic clip-clop, weakness from hunger, and the warmth of the sun after the storm lulled me to sleep. Hoopa continued plodding homeward, apparently ignoring a large branch hanging across the trail.

He ducked his head, brushing us off his back.

Fortunately, my fall was broken by several large boulders along the path. I looked up to see Doc hanging on the branch, then dropping lightly to the ground like an Olympic gymnast.

"I didn't see that coming," he said, or words to that effect. It was hard to understand what he was saying, what with all his laughter.

I may have mentioned something about a horse's ass not always being on the tail end.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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